WASHINGTON – For nearly eight months, President Trump has boasted that appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court ranks high among his signature achievements.
But earlier this year, Trump talked about rescinding Gorsuch's nomination, venting angrily to advisers after his Supreme Court pick was critical of the president's escalating attacks on the federal judiciary in private meetings with legislators.
Trump, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions, was upset that Gorsuch had pointedly distanced himself from the president in a private February meeting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal ( D., Conn.), telling the senator he found Trump's repeated attacks on the federal judiciary "disheartening" and "demoralizing."
The president worried that Gorsuch would not be "loyal," one of the people said, and told aides that he was tempted to pull Gorsuch's nomination – and that he knew plenty of other judges who would want the job.
It is unclear whether Trump's "explosion," as another administration official described it, truly put Gorsuch's nomination in jeopardy or whether the president was expressing his frustration aloud, as he often does. But at the time, some in the White House and on Capitol Hill feared that Gorsuch's confirmation – which had been shaping up to be one of the clearest triumphs of Trump's tumultuous young presidency – was on the verge of going awry.
This account is based on interviews with 11 people familiar with the episode, some of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Trump was especially upset by what he viewed as Gorsuch's insufficient gratitude for a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court, White House officials said. The judge sent the president a handwritten letter dated March 2, thanking him for the nomination and explaining how grateful he was, according to a copy obtained by the Washington Post.
"Your address to Congress was magnificent," Gorsuch wrote. "And you were so kind to recognize Mrs. Scalia, remember the justice, and mention me. My teenage daughters were cheering the TV!"
The reference to "the justice" was to Antonin Scalia, the late justice whom Gorsuch replaced, and "Mrs. Scalia" is his widow, Maureen.
Aides said Trump did not immediately receive the note, but it was retrieved by legislative affairs director Marc Short and then viewed by Trump on March 10, helping ease his concerns.
"As head of legislative affairs, our team was in charge of his nomination, and never did I view his nomination in jeopardy, nor did the president ever suggest to me that he wanted to pull him," Short said. "The process obviously caused frustration, but that frustration was compounded by the fact that Gorsuch had sent him a personal letter that he never received."
Gorsuch, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.
"The president's nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch was among his first and most important accomplishments during his first year in office, and delivered on a major campaign promise," White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. "At no point did the president consider withdrawing Justice Gorsuch's nomination. He is very proud of the accomplishment."
Advisers also told Trump that Gorsuch was trying to demonstrate the independence necessary to make it through the confirmation process and that pulling the nomination would have far-reaching repercussions and might infuriate supporters who were enthusiastic about the conservative jurist.
In April, two months after Trump first expressed his ire, the Senate confirmed Gorsuch on a vote of 54 to 45. Trump and his allies promptly began boasting about the appointment as one of the president's major achievements.
The incident that so angered Trump came shortly after a federal judge had issued a nationwide stop to the president's travel ban targeting a list of majority-Muslim countries. At the time, the president disparaged the "so-called judge" on Twitter, writing that the ruling "put our country in such peril."
"If something happens blame him and court system," Trump wrote. "People pouring in. Bad!"
Trump had additionally said that a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that held oral arguments to review the judge's order was "disgraceful" and that the judges cared more about politics than following the law.
Gorsuch, meanwhile, was moving through the confirmation process, doing rounds of courtesy meetings with senators on Capitol Hill – including the one with Blumenthal, which quickly became news after the senator shared their private discussion with reporters.
"I told him how abhorrent Donald Trump's invective and insults are toward the judiciary," Blumenthal told the Post in an interview. "And he said to me that he found them 'disheartening' and 'demoralizing' – his words."
Ron Bonjean, a member of the group guiding Gorsuch though the confirmation process, confirmed the account at the time.
The remarks angered the president, who attacked Blumenthal on Twitter, saying the senator misrepresented Gorsuch's comments. But at the time, at least, he also felt that Gorsuch himself was being disloyal.
In a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), Trump attacked the judge in sharp terms, surprising his fellow Republicans.
"He's probably going to end up being a liberal like the rest of them," Trump told the Republican leaders, according to a person with knowledge of the comments. "You never know with these guys."
A senior White House official who was in the room during the meeting disputed that characterization, saying the president is concerned about the judicial outlook of all lifetime nominees.
But McConnell was so concerned that he made a point of repeatedly telling Trump to stay the course on Gorsuch – and that he would make sure the judge made it through the confirmation process with as few hiccups as possible.
"It's clear [Trump] was very upset with the comment" by Gorsuch, said someone familiar with the incident, speaking anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic.
The person added that he largely faults the White House for failing to adequately prepare Trump for Gorsuch's comments and to explain that Supreme Court nominees asserting their independence from the president who appointed them was a natural part of a successful confirmation process.
In fact, establishing Gorsuch's independence from Trump was so important that it was the subject of the first question he was asked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), a fervent Gorsuch supporter. "Tell us whether you'd have any trouble ruling against the president who appointed you," Grassley said at the time.
"That's a softball, Mr. Chairman," Gorsuch replied. "I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party, other than based on what the law and the facts and the particular case require. And I'm heartened by the support I have received from people who recognize that there's no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country."
Despite Trump's early concerns, Gorsuch's young tenure has given the president little reason to question his appointment to the Supreme Court. If anything, the justice – who has emerged as one of the court's most conservative members – has been criticized for not distancing himself enough from both the president and the Republican Senate leaders who championed his nomination through the highly partisan confirmation process.
Gorsuch traveled to Kentucky with McConnell to lecture at the senator's two alma maters. One of his first public speeches was to a conservative scholarship organization that held their luncheon meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, the subject of a lawsuit alleging that payments to Trump's companies violate the Constitution's emoluments clause.
Gorsuch also was the featured speaker at the annual black-tie gala of the Federalist Society, which had recommended him to Trump for the Supreme Court, telling the cheering crowd that neither originalism or textualism "is going anywhere on my watch."
In April, Trump bragged to the National Rifle Association that Gorsuch "is really something very special," and in June told the Faith and Freedom Coalition that no president had accomplished more in their first 100 days, citing Gorsuch as a key achievement.
"I appointed and confirmed a Supreme Court justice in the mold of the late, great Antonin Scalia," he said, "and now Justice Gorsuch has a seat on the United States Supreme Court."
In his March note to Trump, Gorsuch was similarly effusive.
"The team you have assembled to assist me in the Senate is remarkable and inspiring," he wrote. "I see daily their love of country and our Constitution, and know it is a tribute to you and your leadership for policy is always about personnel."